Following a recent discussion of Pound’s winning of the Bollingen prize, I read that two of the judges had nominated William Carlos Williams instead. Although I haven’t read Williams for awhile, I remembered some poems fondly, poems I’d previously referred to in this blog. Pursuing this line of thought, I discovered the following comments at the America Academy of Poets
Following Pound, he was one of the principal poets of the Imagist movement, though as time went on, he began to increasingly disagree with the values put forth in the work of Pound and especially Eliot, who he felt were too attached to European culture and traditions. Continuing to experiment with new techniques of meter and lineation, Williams sought to invent an entirely fresh—and singularly American—poetic, whose subject matter was centered on the everyday circumstances of life and the lives of common people.
For me, the critical difference between Pound and Williams is that Williams’ poetry is “centered on the everyday circumstances of life and the lives of common people,” As I stated in an earlier blog entry on Emerson’s “The American Scholar,” I agreed with Emerson when in describing the ideal scholar he said that:
In the right state, he is, Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men's thinking.
Emerson thought Whitman was the personification of the “American Scholar.” Apparently, I’m not alone in believing that Williams, not Pound, really picked up Walt Whitman’s poetic mantle. Despite “Pact,” Pound merely borrowed from Whitman’s style while rejecting his vision of America and the American people. For my taste, Pound’s vision is too wrapped up in books, too literary. Williams, while less obviously adopting Whitman’s style, seems to share his perception of everyday life and view of the lives of common people.
In doing so, Williams wrote poems that seem as relevant today as the day they were written, for they describe human nature at its most fundamental level, whether that be nature of politicians:
When blackguards and murderers
under cover of their offices
accuse the world of those villainies
which they themselves invent to
torture us-we have no choice
but to bend to their designs,
buck them or be trampled while
our thoughts gnaw, snap and bite
within us helplessly-unless
we learn from that to avoid
being as they are, how love
will rise out of its ashes if
we water it, tie up the slender
stem and keep the image of its
lively flower chiseled upon our minds.
In a world where our government seems bent on destroying other governments because they are part of an “evil-axis,” we can either “bend to their designs,” conceding to their vision of a capitalistic empire, give up our own life to oppose them, be tortured by our conscience because we’ve done nothing to depose them, or, as Williams seems to suggest, simply learn not to be like them, to love our fellow man, and, in doing so, to prove once again that the Christian concept of loving thy neighbor, even when he’s not part of your “chosen” group, can overcome seemingly impossible odds.
Even when describing abstract ideas like perfection, Williams managed to somehow remain true to his concept of “No ideas but in things:”
0 lovely apple!
beautifully and completely
hardly a contour marred-
perhaps a little
shrivelled at the top but that
in every detail! 0 lovely
apple! what a
deep and suffusing brown
unspoiled surface! No one
has moved you
since I placed you on the porch
rail a month ago
No one. No one!
While ambiguous enough to lend itself to different interpretations, “Perfection” seems to suggest that perfection, particularly when admired from afar, is a meaningless concept. All things, at least all things of this world, seem to contain the seeds of destruction within themselves. The apple may have been nearly “perfect” when it was placed on the porch rail a month ago to ripen, but when allowed to ripen past its prime it is “perfectly” rotten. Strange how the “perfect romance,” particularly when people take it for granted that it is perfect, can turn bad over time. Best of all, although the poem recognizes the impermanence of "pefection," it does so with a lively sense of humor, adding perspective to the observation.
One of my favorite William’s poems is “The Bare Tree:”
THE BARE TREE
The bare cherry tree
higher than the roof
last year produced
abundant fruit. But how
speak of fruit confronted
by that skeleton?
Though live it may be
there is no fruit on it.
Therefore chop it down
and use the wood
against this biting cold.
Obviously the poem questions the value of expediency. In the short run, it makes sense to cut down the tree because you’re bitterly cold, but in the long run you will miss the delicious cherries next spring. Unfortunately, more and more the American people seem to use short-term goals to judge everything. If our stock doesn’t double in three months it’s time to dump it. If it doesn’t make me happy “right now” why put up with it. By judging things merely by appearances, we often consider them less worthy than they really are. Finally, on yet another level, the poem suggests the very miracle of life itself, the annual rebirth of our world.
At his best, William Carlos Williams can almost help us to regain our faith in the human race, make us believe that there is hope for mankind if we but recognize people for who they really are.